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15 Cinematographers Turned Directors

Features
by The Playlist Staff
April 17, 2014 3:07 PM
5 Comments
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Tom DiCillo
Highlights As A Cinematographer: North Carolina native DiCillo went to film school at NYU at the same time as Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch, and got his start as a cinematographer for Jarmusch, helming his feature debut “Permanent Vacation,” the famous 1986 original “Coffee & Cigarettes” short, and “Stranger Than Paradise.”

Directorial Debut: “Johnny Suede” (1991)
DiCillo’s first film landed at Sundance in 1991, launching the career of its leading man, one William Bradley Pitt. The future megastar plays the title character, an aspiring rock star with a truly impressive haircut and a nifty pair of shoes. Catherine Keener and Nick Cave are also among the cast for the film, which became something of a cult classic. It’s still perhaps a little too in thrall to DiCillo’s friend and mentor, but there’s a lot to like here nevertheless, not least the rockabilly soundtrack.

Subsequent Career: DiCillo’s next film suggested that he was heading for even bigger and better things: 1995’s “Living In Oblivion,” inspired partly by the production of ‘Suede,’ is a sharp satire about the production of a low-budget movie starring Steve Buscemi as the DiCillo surrogate and in his debut role, the great Peter Dinklage. DiCillo didn’t capitalize on its acclaim though: none of follow-ups “Box Of Moonlight,” “The Real Blonde,” “Double Whammy” or “Delirious” found audiences, or many fans. Better notices arrived for 2009’s Doors documentary “When You’re Strange,” but since then, DiCillo has stuck to TV, with credits including “The Good Wife,” “Law & Order” and “Chicago Fire.”

Ronald Neame
Highlights as Cinematographer: It’s rare that a cinematographer also gets a credit as a screenwriter, yet Neame does that double duty on 1945’s “Blithe Spirit” his last film as DP before switching horses to direction. Prior to that, the British filmmaker had nearly 50 credits, but didn’t really gain influence as a DP until the 40s, when he shot “Major Barbara,” “One of Our Aircraft is Missing” and “In Which We Serve."

Directorial Debut: “Take My Life” (1947)
Based on the novel by Winston Graham, who also wrote “Marnie,” and shot by Guy Green who would also go on to direct, Neame’s debut feels indebted to British Hitchcock films, particularly “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes.” But if it’s a little B-level in cast (momentary sex symbol Greta Gynt and Hugh Williams), it makes up for it elsehwere especially in British-accented dialogue so clipped it sounds like the characters are spitting shards of glass at each other. A twisty cat-and-mouse game in which an opera singer’s husband is accused of murder so she goes on the hunt for the real killer, it’s a fun, if disposable thriller, marked by noirish b/w photography.

Subsequent Career: Neame delivered 26 features as director, but had a moment in the late 60s/70s when, after “Gambit” and the excellent “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” he made the musical “Scrooge,” followed by disaster epics “The Poseidon Adventure” and “Meteor” followed by “The Odessa File.”

Mario Bava
Highlights As A Cinematographer: The son of a sculptor from Liguria who also worked in Italy’s silent film industry, Bava went into the business in the late 1930s, his first two credits as cinematographer coming on early shorts from Roberto Rossellini,Lively Teresa” and “The Bullying Turkey.” He soon became a fixture in the industry, working with directors like Mario Costa, Aldo Fabrizi and Pietro Francisci.

Directorial Debut: “Black Sunday” (1960)
Having done uncredited directorial work on a number of B-movies (including taking over “The Giant Of Marathon” from Jacques Tourneur), Bava finally got to make his solo debut with “Black Sunday” in 1960. The film that essentially birthed the giallo genre, it stars scream queen Barbara Steele as a witch put to death, only to be resurrected 200 years later as a vampire. The blood-soaked result, influenced by classic Universal horror has undoubted flair and lashings of atmosphere, and looks absolutely gorgeous. It went on to influence films from helmers like Francis Ford Coppola and Tim Burton, who consciously pay tribute to Bava in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “Sleepy Hollow” respectively.

Subsequent Career: Bava’s first film arguably remains his finest, (along with 1966’s “Kill, Baby Kill,” beloved of Martin Scorsese) but there was other strong stuff to come: he developed giallo further with “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” and “Blood and Black Lace,” and helmed cult comic-book classic “Danger: Diabolik” (a favorite of Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, among others). His films started to run into distribution difficulties in the 1970s, and the work dried up: he eventually passed away of a heart attack soon after completing final film “Shock.”

Gordon Willis
Highlights as Cinematographer: Prior to his directorial debut, Willis has almost too many to stellar entries in his cinematography CV to mention: “Klute,” “The Godfather,” “The Godfather Part II,” “All the President’s Men,” ”Bad Company” ”The Parallax View,” ”The Drowning Pool” “Annie Hall,” “Interiors” and “Manhattan” among others.

Directorial Debut: “Windows” (1980)
“Huh, why does Willis, DP on such an amazing array of classic films, only have one directorial credit to his name?” might ask someone who had never seen “Windows.” It really is that dire, despite being couched in the beautifully textured photography of a much better movie. The problem is absolutely everything else, from the reek of homophobia, to the ludicrous plotting, to the total absence of tension, to the somnambulist performance by star Talia Shire striking up zero sparks with her (heterosexual) love interest. It’s a film that starts with a rape and gets less tasteful from there, as we discover it was perpetrated by an obsessive lesbian who gets off on hearing the victim’s recorded moans, and it’s remarkable maybe only for including some of the heaviest heavy breathing we’ve ever heard. Or maybe that was us snoring.

Subsequent Career: Thankfully, Willis never took up those reins again, instead returning to his role as DP to deliver, among many others: 5 more Woody Allens (“Stardust Memories,” “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” “Zelig,” “Broadway Danny Rose” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo”) as well as “Pennies From Heaven,” “Perfect,” “Presumed Innocent” before reuniting with Coppola for diminished return “The Godfather Part III.

Jack N. Green
Highlights as Cinematographer: Green will always be most known for his collaboration with Clint Eastwood: 1986’s “Heartbreak Ridge” “Bird,” “The Dead Pool” (which Eastwood didn’t direct but starred in) “Pink Cadillac” (ditto) “White Hunter Black Heart” “The Rookie” and “Unforgiven,” for which Green was Oscar-nominated. “A Perfect World”Absolute Power” “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” followed, while he also lensed “The Net,” plus “Twister” and “Speed 2” for ex-DP Jan de Bont, prior to directing for himself.

Directorial Debut: “Traveller” (1997)
A curious feature to make at all, let alone for your debut, “Traveller” is quite an enjoyable con man movie, with the twist being that these are no slick noir grifters but a group of Irish-descent travellers in the rural South for whom conning is a way of life. Green brings the same unobtrusive style that he does to Eastwood’s contemporary features and there are some good, underplayed performances by Bill Paxton and Mark Wahlberg as the bottom-rung antiheroes. It screws up its third act, and the female parts are underdrawn, but overall it didn’t deserve to disappear quite so tracelessly.

Subsequent Career: Green has one other directorial credit for the terrible would-be erotic thriller “Seduced: Pretty When You Cry,” but his real job as DP has kept him busier in the years since, with him lensing “Space Cowboys” “50 First Dates” “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” “Serenity” and “Hot Tub Time Machine” among others, with 5 further features currently listed as forthcoming on his IMDB page.


Pitchforks down, people, we know there are some big omissions. Sven Nykvist, longtime Ingmar Berman DP has directed a few features but up to and including “One and One” (1978) they are very hard to come by. We can say, however that “The Ox,” from 1991 is well worth seeking out, especially for Bergman fans — it’s an austere and somber morality play starring Stellan Skarsgard, Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow that boasts a similar kind of deep-cut tragic arc. Similarly, Australian DP and Wong Kar-Wai collaborator Christopher Doyle's autism-themed first feature “Away With Words” is also a bit of a rarity, though you can find a directorial piece by him on the “Paris Je T’Aime” compilation, and his latest “Beautiful” premiered a couple of weeks ago at the Hong Kong Film Festival.

Some others we simply had no space for: Godard’s frequent DP Raoul Coutard (“Breathless,” “Pierrot le Fou,” “Week End”) made his debut with "Hoa-Binh" (1970) a native’s-eye view of the Vietnam war that was nominated for a Foreign language Oscar; as mentioned above Andrzej Bartkowiak of “Speed” fame made overlown Jet Li vehicle "Romeo Must Die" in 2000; William A Fraker, who served as cinematographer on “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Bullitt” made "Monte Walsh" in 1970, a rather good western with Lee Marvin, Jack Palance and Jeanne Moreau.

I am Cuba” DP Sergey Urusevsky made two features as director, neither of which we could track down in time; the great James Wong Howe made his directorial start with otherwise so-so Sidney Poitier/Harlem Globetrotters tale "Go Man Go"; prolific DP and Alexander Payne collaborator Phedon Papamichael Jr made the slightly hilarious (unintentionally) "Dark Side of Genius" and three other B-movies in between his high-profile Hollywood outings; while “The Innocents” and “The Elephant Man” DP Freddie Francis made his debut with the disposably breezy "Two and Two Make Six" (1960). There are plenty more, so if we’ve missed someone you feel is crucial, light your torch and lay siege to the comments section below.

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5 Comments

  • alex | April 19, 2014 12:03 PMReply

    haven't seen "The Diving People And The Butterfly" yet... sounds like it could be a good life-affirming comedy about a paraplegic comedian dying of cancer

  • The Great and Powerful Chas | April 17, 2014 7:58 PMReply

    DPs tend to make lousy directors, as they're used to composing in space rather than time - in other words, they can make a pretty picture but they don't know how to tell a story.

  • Major Kalas | April 17, 2014 5:51 PMReply

    ...what about Peter Hyams? Is he a better director or DP?

  • Glass | April 17, 2014 5:32 PMReply

    I think Nic Roeg is the greatest DP-turned-director, and to be honest, his best films and MEDIUM COOL are the only great films to be directed by a former DP. It's funny how that works - conventional logic tells us they'd be a shoo-in for becoming great directors but it just isn't the case.

  • Dan S | April 17, 2014 3:38 PMReply

    Mikael Salomon turned to directing in the early '90s, but mostly sticks to TV now.

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